By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Before Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison County was released as a book and then as an Eastwood-Streep blockbuster, most of the world had never heard of the 16,000-person Iowa town. But good descriptive writing and a few Hollywood breaks certainly changed all that.
Sonoma County author Rob Loughran, 56, can only hope for the same kind of luck with his latest effort, “The Smartest Kid in Petaluma,” published in December by Windsor-based Foulmouth Bard Press. It is his 23rd book and only the first aimed at the huge fourth- to fifth-grade market base for online publishers.
The book is based largely on Loughran’s own life. Like Norman Babbit, the book’s protagonist, he moved to Petaluma at age 15 and dealt with the “on the outside looking in” syndrome that many new kids experience.
Loughran was born in San Francisco but considers himself a Petaluma native, explaining that “where you go to high school is where you choose to grow up or decide not to grow up.”
Until they relocated to Petaluma 42 years ago, his family lived in Pacifica, where his dad was a union plumber employed by the state. The job required him to live within a set number of miles from the job site. Petaluma was as far north of the Golden Gate Bridge as he could move and still keep his union card.
“Believe it or not, the weather in Petaluma was also attractive compared to the terminal Pacifica fog,” Loughran said.
His parents also saw Petaluma as the perfect place to raise children, settling in East Petaluma off Maria Drive. Both Loughran and his book’s hero can claim the future mall-site, Kenilworth Junior High, as their alma mater.
As the story unfolds, the scrawny, near-sighted Norman Babbit spends countless hours hiking in Helen Putnam Park. Through the magic of poetic license, Loughran has “moved” the park to the East side to make the idyllic pre-teen adventure territory within walking distance of home.
Loughran’s plot line has young Norman working part-time in an old-style grocery store, strictly inspired by the sights and sense of the original Volpi’s Grocery Store that used to be next door to the restaurant’s current location. There’s also a scenario in which Norman attends his older brother’s baseball game at Casa Grande High.
When asked about his own Petaluma memories, Loughran recalls the old Sears Roebuck appliance store on Petaluma Blvd., now home to the seemingly endless run of Italian fine-dining establishments. He remembers a saddle shop on the same block and recalls whiling away hours browsing in a dusty used bookstore called Alta’s.
Loughran has his smart-as-a-whip character skip from fifth grade right to seventh, so fitting in is more than a challenge. He experiences bullying before it became a talk-show topic and actually gets blackmailed into doing the bully’s math homework for him. But Loughran says the story is one of survival and, in general, has a “life goes on” nature to it.
Loughran describes Babbit as “funny and resilient, but a kid who takes life situations personally.” Without giving away the story, he says that Norman “seeks and gets redemption. He realizes that his trials and tribulations only comprise one chapter in his life and that he’ll live to face and conquer other challenges.”
Pretty sophisticated philosophy for a 15-year-old. No wonder Norman Babbit is “the smartest kid in Petaluma.”
For more information about Loughran or the book, go to robloughranbooks.com.
What does Petaluma need to remain a great place for future generations of kids? When asked, Loughran cited:
*Semi-massive road repair. “Right now it’s like driving in a third-world country.”
*A new, redesigned swim center-indoor soccer facility.
*A velodrome, to make Petaluma an international sports destination point.